Take a cognitive load off

Two related events happened yesterday, which caused me to write this post.

1. Facebook announced their new messaging system. Project Titan, ‘Gmail killer’, etc..
2. A series of fake Twitter accounts sprung up, offering invites to Facebook’s new system.

Zuckerberg (referring to the ‘problems’ with email) drops in the phrase “cognitive load”. Translation: “thinking too much”. Why have a subject header, for example? There are reasons of course, but largely to do with context, and Facebook is a different context – one that requires less thinking, naturally.

Shortly after the Facebook announcement, I spotted two Twitter accounts fb_com and FBeMail, offering invites to the new messaging system in exchange for retweets and follows. Not an uncommon practice, but if you stop to think for a moment, you might decide that they look a little suspicious. Those with industry knowledge and technical know-how might spot numerous flaws, but the average user only has their common sense. And that’s the problem – Common sense isn’t enough for most people to notice that these accounts are fake, and most likely scams.

This got me thinking [as I often do] about the darker side of companies making technology easier for us.


Ever since computers entered our homes, most progress has involved making things simpler for the end user. Companies like Microsoft have abstracted the complexities of computing such that we don’t need to worry about them. Simplification is synonymous with good user experience, and who could argue that this is a good thing?

This progress continues today. Google have simplified the address bar in Chrome – You don’t have to worry about that nasty “http” bit anymore, and if you don’t know the address you want, it acts like a Google search too. I imagine the ugly, technical nature of the URL will eventually be hidden completely; you will trust your machine implicitly as to whether a site is legitimate and secure.

With Apple’s iOS, you don’t have to cope with the danger, and complexity of installing software. It’s all packaged up for you in a nice, safe abstraction. I expect this model will be common in desktop computers before very long.

Think less, depend more

I’m not arguing that a simple, low-friction user experience is a bad thing, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a flip side to this as the general direction of progress. We have been raised on computers. But we have been raised to be ignorant, complacent and dependent. The software giants have transformed our lives [arguably] for the better, but have left us insufficiently empowered to cope with rogue elements when they strike. Phishing attacks succeed for this very reason, as do the Twitter scams I mention above.

Ironically, as technology companies rush to solve these problems, they leave us even less able to understand and deal with the problems ourselves. Dependency is the price we pay for progress, and it had to happen this way. The speed of progress is accelerating and corporations aren’t gong to hang around for us to understand technology. All that can happen now is that we will be wrapped in more cotton wool.